Story by Cara Devine. Cara is our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the manager of Bomba in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing youtube channel Behind the Bar and the author of Strong, Sweet & Bitter. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
At the Edition Hotel in London, you can traverse its glitzy lobby, filled with glamorous people, and seek out the wood-panelled refuge of the Punch Room. Cosy and intimate, this is where I first tried a milk punch – guided by the bartender I ordered their signature serve, a blend of rum, brandy, cognac and the lesser known arrack, infused with spices, tea, juices and, importantly, milk. The result is ambrosial, rich and full-flavoured yet light and fragrant and, surprisingly, perfectly clear. This was around 10 years ago now and the milk punch has become widespread on cocktail lists, delighting guests with its unexpectedness and providing a perfect template for bartenders to exercise their creativity.
“There’s something magical and very cool (or maybe I’m just very simple!) about taking this absolute mess of a liquid and through the clarification/milk-washing process ending up with a silky and plush liquid that can be a finished drink or an ingredient in another drink. It’s also an easy way to wow your guests…” – Darren Leany, Capitano
Darren Leany, creator of the luscious Tiramisu Milk Punch at Capitano explains the appeal. “I think bartenders are drawn to the milk punch as it is a drink that perfectly demonstrates the intersection of art and science. To this day I am still in awe when the cloudy liquid runs clear and until it happens a part of me thinks it won’t work, even though I understand why it works. There’s something magical and very cool (or maybe I’m just very simple!) about taking this absolute mess of a liquid and through the clarification/milk-washing process ending up with a silky and plush liquid that can be a finished drink or an ingredient in another drink. It’s also an easy way to wow your guests, even in this age where people are more educated than ever, milk still seems to conjure up cloudiness rather than clarity in the mind’s eye. Add to this the ability to be able to riff on beloved desserts and present the same flavours in a new format there is a solid hit of nostalgia that adds another layer to the drink and the guest experience.”
The technique is historic, dating back to England in the 1600s. Some have suggested that royal spy and playwright Aphra Behn (when is her biopic coming out?) was the mastermind behind it. It is certainly mentioned plenty in her works, but it’s hard to corroborate definitively. What does seem to be certain is that the first milk punch recipe dates all the way back to 1711, in a collection of recipes by housewife Mary Rockett. It enjoyed its heyday from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century (Queen Victoria herself was quite a fan, in fact) – in a time before refrigeration its serviceability is obvious as once the solids are removed, the drink becomes stable. It fell out of fashion alongside punches in general, before being rediscovered by modern bartenders in the era of cocktail recipe gravedigging and its long shelf life is still exceedingly useful in a bar environment.
The underlying science is curdling, or splitting. When you add milk to the acidic base of alcohol and juices, the casein proteins clump and trap tannins and other polyphenols, pigments and some flavour compounds. Straining these out mellows and clarifies the drink, while whey proteins add body, resulting in a richer and smoother cocktail. Dairy is most commonly used, but the same effect can be created with the use of coconut milk for a vegan alternative.
Leany shares some hot tips (including using cold milk) for the perfect punch:
- Fat is a great carrier of flavour, therefore it makes sense to infuse the milk with something. A lot of things work here as long as they’re not acidic (which would split the milk) plus if you’re just lazy, use flavoured milk.
- Measure everything to the gram or the ml, consistency is paramount here and when developing take notes every step of the way.
- You don’t need a lot of lemon juice or acidic liquid to split the mix, if you’re not looking for that acidity as a flavour add your acid in 10 ml increments (since you’ll make the same recipe each time unless you change an ingredient this amount of acid will always split your drink).
- Use cold milk, not hot.
- Add punch mix to milk, not milk to punch mix.
- Be patient. What I’m looking for is an eggshell-like texture to start forming. Once that has appeared I know the curds will form and I’ll be able to pass the liquid.
- Once you’ve got the liquid straining (v60 coffee filters work really well, as does an oil filter in a big conical strainer) after about 10 minutes the liquid should be dripping through and bright and clear. Re-pass the first liquid that will be cloudy and keep topping up as you need.
- Once you have the technique down, the sky’s the limit with spirits bases and flavour profiles. The mellowing effect makes it approachable to the general palate, and the large format batching means that with a bit of patience and prep time, the final serve is just a bottle pour. It’s efficient, consistent and crowd-pleasing.
- No crying over split milk here, then.
Lachlan Watt, Whisky & Alement
1575ml Yoichi Single Malt
700ml coffee-infused Seppeltsfield Muscat*
350ml caramelised orange**
10.5g citric acid
Combine all components except milk and citric acid. Combine citric acid and milk, give a quick stir and then add to the rest of the mix. Let it split for 30 minutes or so in the fridge then filter through coffee filters until it runs clear.
* 1 litre of Muscat to 100g of ground espresso roast coffee of your choice. Leave in the fridge for 13 hours then filter out coffee grounds.
** Reduce orange juice to 1 third of original volume over medium heat. Add 100g of sugar per 800ml of reduced orange juice.
100ml stirred over ice in a ceramic mug, orange twist
Tiramisu Milk Punch
Darren Leany, Worksmith
1. 525ml Savoiardi milk*
2. 90ml Cacao nib rum**
3. 120ml Cold filter coffee (you’re looking for a lighter style roast here and something with bright citrus notes ideally)
4. 185ml Pennyweight muscat
5. 45ml 2:1 sugar syrup
6. 45ml Mr. Black coffee liqueur
7. 30ml Lactic acid solution (although fresh lemon juice will work just fine)
1. Have Savoiardi milk ready in a 2L plastic jug.
2. Combine ingredients 2-7 in a 1L plastic jug and stir to combine.
3. Add this punch mix to the Savoiardi milk and stir gently to incorporate the two.
4. You should see it start to curdle almost instantly and the idea is to gently move the curds around, essentially ‘mopping up’ more curds.
5. Leave for about 10 minutes.
6. Gently pour this mix through a chinois lined with a paper oil filter over a 2L plastic jug. After about 10 minutes the liquid should start to drip (it’ll come through quite fast at first). Re-pass the liquid that has already come through the filter and leave to drip through somewhere cool, ideally in the fridge overnight.
150g Savoiardi biscuits, snapped in half
750ml Full cream milk
Add the biscuits to the milk and stir with a wooden spoon, you should end up with a pretty loose paste. Leave to infuse for 1 hour and strain through a chinois, using a spoon to extract every last drop of the milk.
140g Cacao nibs
700ml Dark rum
Add both to a vac bag and seal to full vacuum. Cook sous vide for 30 minutes at 52? then chill and strain through a chinois.
***Lactic acid solution
3g Lactic acid powder
Stir to dissolve
75ml over a large block of ice in a rocks glass.